It adds that because, until now, there has been no restrictions on the sex, age or size of leopards that can be hunted, take-off is indiscriminate, often targeting reproductive females whose cubs would die without their mother. It found that "the risk of extinction almost doubled when females were included in the quota."
Research published by government scientists in May noted that leopards:
- Have a low reproductive rate
- Their distribution is fragmented
- Their abundance and population trend is uncertain
- Illegal off-take is uncertain
- There is little control of harvesting (and especially illegal harvesting) which is high
- Confidence in harvest management and monitoring is low
- Incentives for conservation in the country is low and
- Only between 5 percent and 15 percent of leopard habitat is strictly protected.
Trophy hunting, however, is not the greatest threat to leopards. Far greater off-take is from "problem-animal" killing and the use of leopard skins for ceremonial regalia. Among the Zulu, wearing a leopard skin was a sign of royalty and an acknowledgement of their power and prestige. Increasingly this has been adopted by male members of the Shembe Baptist Church. So what was once a privilege among a select few is now common practice among the Shembe's congregation of over a million followers.
The desire for skins may be from reverence for leopards, but many Shembe seem to not realize the jeopardy in which they are placing the cats or that owning their skin is illegal. This is putting tremendous pressure on the leopard population and has opened a lucrative market for anyone able to supply skins, some coming from as far afield as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.
Surveys suggest that between 1,500 and 2,500 leopards are killed each year to meet the Shembe's demand, with roughly 15,000 skins already in circulation. It is probably the largest collection of illegal wildlife contraband anywhere in the world. In comparison, the number of trophy leopards exported in 12 years between 2001 and 2013 was 1,270.
Until recently, officials turned a blind eye to the traditional practice because it was considered culturally sensitive. But leopard harvesting is now so huge that the Department of Environmental Affairs is realizing that urgent action is required.
West African warriors known as 'leopard men' tranquilize a leopard and drink its blood from a small incision then let it go. They believe this gives them courage and strength and that they are linked to the cat for the rest of their lives.Don Pinnock